Unreal Birth Circumstances – Jesus of Nazareth

 

Circumstances of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth are no less than incredible. A three-way confluence of events from locations in Rome, Persia and Nazareth, hundred miles apart from each other and months in the making, culminated in a small town where none of the figures of the story lived.

Two Gospel accounts cover the Nativity story, Matthew and Luke, each complimenting the other with few overlapping details. According to Luke, Caesar Augustus issued a registration decree although the Roman story behind the story is not told.

Caesar Augustus was designated Pater Patrie of the Roman Empire, Father of the County, on February 5, 2 BC, by the Roman Senate. The achievement was one the 35 highlights in The Deeds of Divine Augustus listing the accomplishments of Caesar over his 25 years of rule.[1]

To honor Augustus in 2 BC, planning began for a special registration of the entire Roman Empire including the provinces, not just the typical census for citizens of Rome. Each registrant was expected to swear an oath of allegiance to Augustus.[2]

Logistics to execute this registration decree required considerable planning, time and resources, especially in a era without electricity, computers, phones, etc. Just the minimal time by horse to enact the announcement in far reaching provinces like Syria would take months.[3]

Meanwhile, Magi “from the East” (Persia, by reputation and historical context), according to Matthew, saw stellar and planetary alignments which signaled something exceptional was about to happen – the birth of a King of Judea. Not just any King – what they saw was so awe-inspiring, they were moved to act.

Believing wholeheartedly in their observations, they planned a journey that would cover hundreds of miles by camel in a quest to find this baby King. Much more than just a tribute visit, they intended to present the baby with precious gifts and worship him.

Greek text of Matthew uses the word proskynēsai or proskuneo translated as “worship.” The word means “to do reverence to;” “bow down or bow down before;” “kneeling or prostration to do homage (to one).”[4]

In another concurrent series of events, while the Magi were on their journey to Jerusalem, Joseph and Mary were busy going about their daily business. Preparing for the arrival of their new baby, they were planning his birth in Nazareth without any clue what was about to befall them.

Suddenly, everything changed – a praeco announced Augustus’ registration decree that compelled the betrothed couple to do the unthinkable. On short notice, an unplanned 90-mile trek on foot to register for the decree in Bethlehem was required in-spite-of Mary’s imminent childbirth.[5]

No one or thing trumped a decree by a Roman Caesar. Although it is not definitively stated that the decree had a deadline, Rome expected prompt compliance. Evidence of this urgency is seen by the immediate response of Joseph and Mary.

People were required to register in the home town of their family linage. In the case of Joseph and Mary, it was Bethlehem, the home town of King David who lived about a 1000 years earlier.

No doubt Mary would give birth before they returned to Nazareth where Mary should have been with her family and friends. Timing in this scenario is critical – if the praeco had announced the decree about two weeks earlier or later, Jesus would not have been born in Bethlehem.

Weary from the unplanned long trip from Nazareth, Joseph and Mary discovered that lodging accommodations in Bethlehem were full and they had to stay in a stable. As if this situation wasn’t challenging enough, Mary went into labor and was forced to give birth to Jesus using a manger for his crib.

According to Luke, the birth of Jesus was heralded by a host of angels. Shepherds left their flocks in the fields and went to Bethlehem to see this sight.

Not knowing their final destination, the Magi initially headed for Jerusalem, the government center of Judea. The city seemed to be a good place to get information and they went to the palace of Judea’s King Herod to ask him.

Arrival in Jerusalem by the Magi entourage was big news. It was not often that Magi visited Jerusalem being off the major trade routes and it likely caused a stir.[6] Further, the mystic Magi practices embraced by Hellenism were shunned by Judaism yet favored by the King.

Herod immediately granted the Magi access to his palace when the they arrived. The reigning King was informed of the news of the birth of a King of Judea, one with his own star – it was most shocking news.

At that point, Herod did not know any further details. However, it can be surmised that the King figured the Magi obviously knew something profound, both considering their reputation and the fact of their long journey to honor and worship this baby.[7]

After the Magi left the palace, the King summonsed the Jewish chief priests and scribes and asked if they knew where Christos was to be born. No ambiguity surrounded the question, the Jewish religion experts knew exactly what Herod was asking. They cited an ancient prophecy from Jewish prophet Micah who foretold the Messiah was to be born in “Bethlehem in land of Judah.[8]

Now that Herod believed he knew where the Christos was to be born, he planned to exchange that knowledge with the Magi to learn the exact location of the baby. The King secretly hailed the Magi to return back to the palace where they unwittingly agreed to the deal.

After leaving the palace, “his Star” reappeared at some point to the Magi and then stood over Bethlehem. The Magi were extremely excited and it corroborated the information given to them from Herod. Still not exactly sure of their final destination, they headed South toward the town just a short distance away.

Far off the path of a major trade route, unexpectedly the Magi from Persia arrived in Bethlehem. If their arrival was big news in Jerusalem, image what it was in the much smaller town. The Magi didn’t belong there, but the destination is where their quest took them.

In a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business, finding the child would not have been difficult. The Magi found the new family, then presented the newborn with their precious gifts and worshiped him.

Not all the drama was finished. Warned in a dream, according to Matthew, the Magi did not return to Jerusalem to tell Herod where the Christos was located.

Once Herod realized he had been duped, he commanded that all the male babies in the Bethlehem area under 2 years of age to be killed. Actions taken by the King were consistent with his ruthless reputation.

Joseph and Mary with Jesus escaped the King’s horrific murders by hiding in Egypt until Herod died shortly thereafter. Historian Josephus describes in detail events that transpired during the final weeks leading up to the King’s death. Eventually Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth where they raised Jesus and his siblings.

Was it just a coincidence that a 3-way confluence of events culminating in Bethlehem involved a quest by Magi from Persia following only stellar signs; Caesar’s registration decree intended only to honor himself and Rome; and Joseph and Mary who were compelled by the decree to embark on a 90-mile trip from Nazareth when she was about to give birth? Or was it divine plan? 

 

Updated May 4, 2024.

 

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REFERENCES:

[1] Martin, Ernest L. The Star of Bethlehem – The Star That Astonished the World. Associates for Scriptural Knowledge. 2003. Chapter 13. <http://askelm.com/star/star000.htm#_edn11>  Gertoux, Gerard. “Dating the death of Herod.” 2015. Academia.edu. 2015. <http://www.academia.edu/2518046/Dating_the_death_of_Herod>  Gertoux, Gerard. “Dating the two Censuses of Quirinius.” 2018. Academia.edu. <http://web.archive.org/web/20220427180241/http://www.academia.edu/3184175/Dating_the_two_Censuses_of_Quirinius>  Jachowski, Raymond. Academa.Edu. “The Death of Herod the Great and the Latin Josephus: Re-Examining the Twenty-Second Year of Tiberius.” n.d. <https://www.academia.edu/19833193/The_Death_of_Herod_the_Great_and_the_Latin_Josephus_Re_Examining_the_Twenty_Second_Year_of_Tiberius> “pater patriae.” Nova Roma. 2007. <www.novaroma.org/nr/Pater_Patriae_(Nova_Roma)>  Mosley, John.  “Common Errors in ‘Star of Bethlehem’ Planetarium Shows.” Reprinted from the Planetarian, Third Quarter 1981, International Planetarium Society, Inc. n.d. <http://www.ips-planetarium.org/?page=a_mosley1981>  Augustus. The Deeds of the Devine Augustus. #35.  Augustus, Caesar.  The Deeds of the Devine Augustus (Res gestae divi Augusti). #35. Trans. Thomas Bushnell. 1998. <http://classics.mit.edu/Augustus/deeds.html>  “pater patriae.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/pater-patriae>  confluence logo. Clipground.com. 2019. <https://clipground.com/images/confluence-logo-1.jpg>  Hochhalter, Howard. “The Star of Kings and the Magi.” 2023. video. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGTmwuqznec
[2] Gertoux, Gerard. “Herod the Great and Jesus.” Platner, Samuel Ball. A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. 1929. “Forum Augustum.” <http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/Places/Europe/Italy/Lazio/Roma/Rome/_Texts/PLATOP*/Forum_Augustum.html#Aedes_Martis_Ultoris>  CR “Temple of Mars Ultor, Rome.” World History Encyclopedia. n.d. <https://www.worldhistory.org/article/617/temple-of-mars-ultor-rome/>
Orbis. Stanford University. map calculator of the Roman world. n.d. <https://orbis.stanford.edu/> “Census.” <https://books.google.com/books?id=Cu89AAAAYAAJ&pg=PA403&lpg=PA403&dq=greek+word+for+census&source=bl&ots=LM1MjmCiJt&sig=1_yjJgyNxcCcSWZvf0QK69IJuMw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjx0oPA04DYAhXo6YMKHebvAEwQ6AEIejAK#v=onepage&q=census&f=false>  Livius, Titus. The History of Rome. Book 33, #28. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0144:book=33:chapter=28&highlight=crier>  Pliny the Elder.  The Natural History. 1.Dedication C. Plinius Secundus to His Friend Titus Vespasian. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0137:book=1:chapter=dedication&highlight=crier#note-link34>  Gertoux, Gerard. “Dating the two Censuses of Quirinius.” n.d. Academia.edu.  <http://www.academia.edu/3184175/Dating_the_two_Censuses_of_Quirinius>  Heinrich, Bill. Mysteries of the Messiah. 2016. “The Registration (Census).” <https://www.mysteriesofthemessiah.net/2016/01/04-03-09-bethlehem-c-6-5-b-c-the-registration-or-census/#_ftnref3>  Hochhalter. “The Star of Kings and the Magi.”
[3] Orbis. Stanford University. “Travel Time from Ancient Rome.” Brilliant Maps. 2023. <https://brilliantmaps.com/travel-time-rome/>
[4] Matthew 2:2. BibleHub.com. n.d. lexicon. <https://biblehub.com/lexicon/matthew/2-2.htm> Matthew 2:2 BibleHub.com. interlinear. n.d. <https://biblehub.com/interlinear/matthew/2-2.htm> Matthew 2:2. NetBible.net. “4352.” n.d. <https://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Mat&chapter=2&verse=2> “G4352. Greek Dictionary (Lexicon-Concordance). definitions. n.d. <http://lexiconcordance.com/greek/4352.html>
[5] Luke 2:4. Smallwood, E. Mary.  The Jews Under Roman Rule: From Pompey to Diocletian. 2nd Ed. 1981. p 152. <https://books.google.com/books?id=jSYbpitEjggC&lpg=PA151&ots=VWqUOinty4&dq=census%20Syria%20Rome&pg=PP1#v=snippet&q=register&f=false>  Heinrich, Bill. Mysteries of the Messiah. 2016. <https://www.mysteriesofthemessiah.net/2016/01/04-03-09-bethlehem-c-6-5-b-c-the-registration-or-census/>  Smith, William; Wayte, William; Marindin, G.E., Ed. A Dictionary  of Greek and Roman Antiquities. 1890. “commentaries, #4;” “census.” <https://books.google.com/books?id=Cu89AAAAYAAJ&pg=PA403&lpg=PA403&dq=greek+word+for+census&source=bl&ots=LM1MjmCiJt&sig=1_yjJgyNxcCcSWZvf0QK69IJuMw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjx0oPA04DYAhXo6YMKHebvAEwQ6AEIejAK#v=onepage&q=register&f=false>  Hochhalter. “The Star of Kings and the Magi.”  Tarwacka, Anna. “The consequences of avoiding census in Roman law.” 2013. <https://www.academia.edu/5525859/The_consequences_of_avoiding_census_in_Roman_law>
[6] Matthew 2:3.  Strabo. Geography. Chapters II-III. n.d. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0239:book=1:chapter=2&highlight=magi> <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0239:book=15:chapter=3&highlight=magi>  Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. n.d. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0258:book=1:chapter=prologue&highlight=magi>  Stillwell, Richard et. al. “Gaza Israel.” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites. n.d. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0006:entry=gaza&highlight=caravan>
[7] Plato. Republic. Book 9, Section 572e. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0168:book=9:section=572e&highlight=magi>  “Daniel, Chief of Wise Men – a Hebrew Magi?” TheOdds.website. 2018, revised 2023. <https://theodds.website/daniel-chief-of-wise-men-a-hebrew-magi/>
[8] Matthew 2:4-6. Hochhalter. “The Star of Kings and the Magi.”

Matthew’s Nativity – An Investigative Breakdown

 

Easy to forget, the Christmas Nativity story didn’t happen in a single night – it is a time-lapsed compilation of events that took place over many weeks, if not months. Two Gospels, Luke and Matthew, provide the accounts of the Nativity story.[1]

Luke’s account starts just before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth with an angelic birth announcement that Mary would give birth, even though she was a virgin, by way of the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy. Marking the time in history with Augustus, Quirinius and Herod, it ends with baby Jesus being presented to God at the Temple.[2]

Matthew’s account starts with the angelic pregnancy announcement to Joseph that Mary would give birth to the Son of God. Next chapter jumps to the arrival of the wise men translated as “Magi” in some Bibles.[3]

Talmud references to Magi include other names they were known by: “fire worshippers” and “Guebers” from Persia.[4] Having a long history of persecuting the Jews, the Magi were well-known, feared and disliked.[5]

Magian priests, on the other hand, were highly regarded in the former Persian and Greek Empires for their mysterious abilities. Among them, they had a reputation for reading the stars and making accurate predictions.[6]

Plato and historian Strabo referred to the Magi as “king makers,” a reputation that had to be known to Herod. Greek Hellenism, prevalent in the Jewish culture, accepted all religions including Zoroastrianism, the main religion of the Magi.[7]

Openly embracing Hellenism, Herod incorporated Greek inscriptions and architectural features in the enhanced Jewish Temple. Causing great consternation to Jewish fundamentalists and their eventual execution, the event marked the beginning of the end for Herod.[8]

Setting the scene in Matthew, King Herod of Judea was in his Jerusalem palace rather than one of his other palaces in Herodium, Jericho and Caesarea.[9] Soon he would move to Jericho to live out his final days with a most miserable health condition…but not yet.[10]

As strange as it may seem, purveyors of mysticism were introduced by Matthew into the Jewish Nativity story of Jesus. Calling upon Herod at his palace, the Magi were promptly welcomed.

Shockingly, these Wise Men said something most alarming to King Herod. Revealing the reason for their visit, the Magi asked a question:

MT 2:2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”(NKJV)

Any king, especially Herod, would be distressed when these king-maker Magi said they were looking for a newborn “King of the Jews.” Future tense was not used, rather present tense – he was already a king.

More disconcerting, the Magi said they had “come to worship Him” and it probably seemed very likely the people might want to do the same. Word leaked out to the people of Jerusalem of what the Magi had said and not surprisingly, they were also “troubled.”

At the very least, the rumor mill presented an air of uncertainty which always tends to worry a populace. If the child was the foretold Messiah, such speculation certainly stirred the pot even more.

Herod’s next action clearly demonstrates he believed the Magi when he “gathered all the chief priests and scribes together asking them where the Christ was to be born.”[11] Change in language is of special note:  the Magi inquired about the birth of a “King of the Jews” while Herod’s quote uses the Greek word Christos meaning Messiah.

Whether this difference in language is attributable to the author of Matthew or if Herod concluded the King of the Jews meant the Messiah, it didn’t make any difference. Chief priests and scribes understood exactly what Herod was asking as evidenced by their specific answer.

Jewish chief priests and scribes – members of the Jewish leadership – reported to Herod that a Ruler was prophesied to be born “In Bethlehem of Judea.” Unambiguous, their answer included the quote from the prophecy of Micah 5:1/2.

MT 2:5-6 “…So they said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.”’”(NKJV)

Previous mention of seeing ”his star” was initially not an attention-getting detail to the King. Believing the Magi’s declaration, this detail had been overshadowed by the bombshell announcement that there was another King of the Jews.

Undoubtedly, the Magi saw something in the night sky compelling them to travel hundreds of miles “from the East;” however, they didn’t say when they had seen “his star.” Herod soon realized these details were important – the time of the star’s appearance would serve to determine the child’s age.

Actions by Herod in the remainder of the account are telling. For this ruthless King with a reputation of murdering anyone who might be a threat, there was only one course of action – eliminate the threat. Every step taken from that point forward focused on this outcome.

Secretly Herod called the wise men to second meeting with the intent to determine from them what time the star appeared.[12] Not having received an answer to their initial question, the Magi agreed to meet with Herod again.

Information from the second meeting served to be useful to both parties. Answering the original question of the Magi regarding the location of the child, Herod “sent them to Bethlehem.” In return, Herod was generally able to determine when the Magi saw “his star” and thus the age of the child.[13]

Worshiping no one or thing, Herod set the trap. Cunningly, Herod said to the Magi, “when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.”

MT 2:9-10 “When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.”(NKJV)

After the follow-up meeting with Herod, the Magi saw a second appearance of the “star,” a definitive clue that opens the door for the science of astronomy to plausibly explain it. In a very rare scenario during an 18-month period in 3-2 BC, an extremely rare series of conjunctions occurred in the cosmos centered around Jupiter.

June 17, 2 BC, about nine months after the first Jupiter-Venus very close conjunction, Jupiter, known as the king star, came into an occultation conjunction (overlapping/fused) with Venus, known as the Queen or mother star. Much bigger and brighter, the two brightest stars in the sky formed one star.[14]

Jupiter entered a retrograde and appeared in the South over Bethlehem. Finding the child in Bethlehem was probably not difficult – in a small town, everyone knows what’s what, just ask. Finding Jesus in a house, the Magi “fell down and worshiped Him.” And when they had opened their treasures, they presented expensive gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”[15]

Now it becomes clear why Herod wanted to determine the age of the child. Realizing he had been deceived when the Magi avoided him, true to the reputation of Herod’s ruthless, cruel profile, he commanded all the children 2 years old and younger in the districts of Bethlehem to be killed. 

MT 2:16 “Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.”(NKJV)

More than capable of such evil deeds, there were no bounds for Herod’s diabolical behavior. Torturing people for mere suspicions, Herod killed countless Jews, not to mention killing his brother, three sons, a former Jewish High Priest, and plotted to have all the “principal men” of Judea killed upon his own death.[16]

King Herod’s drastic action confirmed five points the King believed:  the Magi’s declaration; the Jewish religious experts, the Micah prophecy; Christos had been born…and in Bethlehem.

Oft overlooked is a key critical detail provided by Matthew after King Herod died. Archelaus, King Herod’s son, became his successor, a fact that is consistent with secular history.[17]

At least 20 specific details are laid out in a logical sequence in 22 verses, much that is corroborated by history and science. Does this strengthen the credibility to Matthew’s Gospel account about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth?

 

Updated December 20, 2023.

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REFERENCES:

All Bible quotes are from the New King James Version.

[1]  McLeay, Simon. StPeters. “The Nativity According to Matthew.” image. 2018. <https://www.stpeters.org.nz/media/_home_slide_image/th-18-12-02-the-nativity-matthew.jpg
[2] Luke 1:5; 2.
[3] Matthew 2:1. Netbible.org. <http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Mat&chapter=2&verse=1>
[4] Soncino Babylonian Talmud. Ed. Isidore Epstein. The Soncino Press. 1935-1948. Sanhedrin 98a.  <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_98.html#98a_22> Sanhedrin 74b. <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_74.html>  “Babylonia.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10263-magi>  Cicero, M. Tullius. Divination. 44 BC. 1.46. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2007.01.0043%3Abook%3D1%3Asection%3D46> Cicero. Divinations. 1.2.
[5] Segal, Eliezer. “The Menorah and the Magi.” Sources. 1997. <https://people.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/Shokel/971219_MagiMenorah.html> Missler, Chuck. “Who Were the Magi?” Idolphin.org.1999. <http://www.ldolphin.org/magi.html>
[6] “Zoroastrianism.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/15283-zoroastrianism>
[7] Plato. Alcibiades 1. Trans. W.R.M. Lamb. c. 390 AD. 1 121e-1232. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0176%3Atext%3DAlc.%201%3Asection%3D122a>  Herodotus. The Histories. Book 1, Chapters 107-122. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0126>Herodotus. The Histories.  Book 3, Chapters 30, 60-79.  Missler. “Who Were the Magi?”  Plato. Republic. Trans. Paul Shorey. 9.572e. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D9%3Asection%3D572e>  Strabo. Geography. Book 11.9 n.d. <https://web.archive.org/web/20221018120345/https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0198:book=11:chapter=9&highlight=magi>  Polybius. Histories. Book 34, Chapter 2. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0234:book=34:chapter=2&highlight=magi> Herodotus.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Herodotus-Greek-historian> Herod the Great.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2017. <http://www.livius.org/articles/person/herod-the-great/?> “Edom (ē`dŏm), Idumaea, or Idumea.” The Free Dictionary. 2017. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great>  Bunson, Matthew. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Idumaea.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624> “Herod the Great Biography.” TheFamousPeople. image. n.d. <https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/herod-the-great-37596.php> Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. 8.1; 9/7. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0258:book=9:chapter=7&highlight=Magians%2C> “Pythagoras.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2018. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pythagoras>  “Cyrus takes Babylon.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2018. <http://www.livius.org/sources/content/herodotus/cyrus-takes-babylon> “Democritus.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Democritus> Diogenes. Lives. 9.7.
[8] Burrell, Barbara; Gleason, Kathryn L.; Netzer, Ehud. “Uncovering Herod’s Seaside Palace. BAS Library. 1993. <https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/19/3/7>  Geva, Hillel.  “Archaeology in Israel:  Jericho – the Winter Palace of King Herod.” Jewish Virtual Library. 2019. <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jericho-the-winter-palace-of-king-herod>  “Herodium-King Herod-s Palace-Fortress.” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 2000. < https://mfa.gov.il/mfa/israelexperience/history/pages/herodium%20-%20king%20herod-s%20palace-fortress.aspx>  Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews.  Trans. William Whitson. Book XV, Chapter XI. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false> Josephus, Flavius. Wars of the Jews. Trans. William Whitson. Book I, Chapter XXI.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  “Herod the Great.” Bible History Online. 2016. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great> “Herod.” Jewish Virtual Library. n.d. <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/herod>
[9] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI.
[10] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter VIII; Book XVI, Chapter V; Book XVII, Chapters VI; VIII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXI.  “Hellenism” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7535-hellenism>
[11] Matthew 2:4. Greek text. NetBible.org. <http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Mat&chapter=2&verse=4>
[12] Matthew 2:7.
[13] Matthew 2:8, 16.
[14] Phillips, Tony.  “A Christmas Star for SOHO.”  NASA Science | Science New. 16 May 2000.  <http://web.archive.org/web/20170516003444/https://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2000/ast16may_1>  “Venus And Jupiter Will Pass 42 Arc seconds Apart On May 17.” Press Release – Marshall Space Flight Center. SpaceRef.com. 2000. <http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=1819>  Carroll, Susan S. “The Star of Bethlehem:  An Astronomical and Historical Perspective.”1997. Twin Cities Creation Science Association. n.d. <http://www.tccsa.tc/articles/star_susan_carroll.pdf>
Martin, Ernest L. The Star of Bethlehem – The Star That Astonished the World. Associates for Scriptural Knowledge. 2003. Chapter 4.  Larson, Frederick A. The Star of Bethlehem. 2014. <http://www.bethlehemstar.net/setting-the-stage/why-are-we-hearing-this-now>  Haley, A. S. “The Star of Bethlehem and the Nativity.” Anglican Curmudgeon. 2009.   <http://web.archive.org/web/20171016111146/http://www.newmanlib.ibri.org/Papers/StarofBethlehem/75starbethlehem.htm> Bunson, Matthew.  Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Jupiter.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624>
[15] Matthew 2:11. NKJV. Larson, Frederick A. The Star of Bethlehem. 2014. <http://www.bethlehemstar.net/setting-the-stage/why-are-we-hearing-this-now> “Retrograde.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2023. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/human-body-systems-2237111>
[16] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapters III-VII, IX, XIII, XVI; Book XVI, Chapter XI; Book XVII, Chapters VI, IX.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapters X, XXVII, XXXIII.
[17] Matthew 2:22.

Herod – Profile of a Cruel & Cunning King

 

Infamous as King of Judea in Matthew’s Nativity story, Herod was a threat to the lives of the Magi, Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. It can be hard to believe the King of Judea would kill all the baby boys aged 2 years and younger just to ensure he eliminated just one baby.

MT 2:16 Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi.” (NKJV)

King Herod’s profile is truly that of such a villain. One clue might be that Herod was not himself a Jew – his father was Idumean and his mother Arabian.[1]

Jewish historian Josephus noted people quickly saw Herod’s harsh personality:

“…they saw that he was a violent and bold man, and very desirous of acting tyrannically.” – Flavius Josephus [2]

Killing many people, even though a king, was in violation of Jewish law compelling the Sanhedrin put Herod on trial for murder. High Priest Hyrcanus tipped off the defiant Herod of the pending verdict allowing him to temporarily escape to Damascus.[3]

Aligning himself with Roman rulers, he was appointed as a military general “for he sold him that post for money.” Marc Antony “by money” named Herod as Tetrarch and such persuasions also helped avert a dangerous dalliance with Queen Cleopatra.[4]

With more financial influences, Antony presented Herod to the Roman Senate which voted to make him King of Judea in 40 BC. Authority in Judea had to be taken by force over the course of 3 years with assistance by Antony and Roman Legions.[5]

Antony’s defeat by Octavius (aka Augustus) caused Herod to believe his days were numbered. With nothing to lose, he boldly presented himself to Caesar Augustus in Rome.

Acknowledging his loyal friendship to Antony, Herod positioned loyalty as a quality that would likewise be valuable to Caesar if he was allowed to pledge his allegiance. The ploy worked and established a lasting relationship with Augustus for the remainder of Herod’s life.[6]

Allowed more power by Rome than any other king in the provinces, the King was positioned to acquire great wealth and fame. Revenue was acquired through heavy taxes, from booty of war and at least some illicitly.

Josephus wrote that under cover of night, Herod robbed King David’s sepulcher of gold furniture and precious goods. (Previously, Hycranus had already robbed the money from the tomb.)[7]

Enhancing the Jewish Temple, Herod is famed for building it back to the grandeur of Solomon. New cities were constructed by Herod including Caesarea with a temple dedicated to Caesar and the city of Herodium was built in honor of himself.[8]

Exacerbating his offensive actions, Herod inserted Greek inscriptions and architectural features in the enhanced Temple. One such sacrilege was placing Rome’s golden eagle insignia over the Temple gate leading to a future atrocity when Herod had 40 insurrectionists burned alive and marked his final days.[9]

Trusting no one, Herod was ruthless in quelling any possible threats.[10]A favored interrogation method was torture on “the rack” with only family members being exempt.

Some of those who met a fate on the rack were identified by Josephus. Victims of torture included palace eunuchs, body guards, maids, friends of family members, soldiers, and anyone else possibly holding secrets.[11]

Murders by Herod were standard fare. Family status offered no safe harbor from execution.

Constantly in turmoil, family members of the palace consisted of 10 wives and children. Bearing hatred for one another, it produced rivalries, slanders, lies, backstabbing, and murder conspiracies.[12]

Second wife of Herod was Mariamne whose 17-year old brother was killed by the King simply because he wanted someone else to be high priest. Former high priest, Hyrcanus, Mariamne’s father and old heir to the throne, was killed by Herod.

Mariamne’s two sons were heirs to the throne. Charged with a murder plot to kill the King, his sons were placed on trial in absentia, convicted and executed by strangulation.

Rebuking Herod, his sister Salome and mother for complicity in these executions led to Mariamne’s own execution.[13] Days before Herod died, he executed his son from his first wife, Antipater.[14]

According to Matthew, Herod’s profile of a cruel and cunning King was true to his reputation. Enraged, Herod believed he had been deceived by the Magi who returned home by a different route while Joseph and Mary with baby Jesus escaped Judea to Egypt.

Unusual for rulers of the era, Herod died a natural death, albeit a most miserable one. Disabled by a terrible groin condition, gangrenous bowels protruded out of his body compelling him to attempt a failed suicide.

Knowing death was imminent and feeling sorry for himself, according to Josephus, the King devised the most dastardly plan of his reign.[15] Surmising the principal men of Judea would all rejoice at his death rather than mourn, the King made a demented plan to murder them.

To deprive them of such mockery, under threat of death Herod summoned all the principal men throughout Judea to travel to his palace in Jericho. He then had them locked inside the hippodrome.[15] 

Before his death announcement was made public, the soldiers were to kill these principal men for the purpose of placing all of Judea in a state of mourning. Further, to ensure a deep national mourning, one member of each family in Judea was also to be killed.[16]

Salome, Herod’s reputedly wicked sister, was to carry out his last wishes, but such depravity was even too much for her. Aborting the plan after the death of the king, she informed the soldiers the King had changed his mind at the last moment and they released the principal men.[17]

Does the historical profile of a cruel Herod strengthen or diminish the credibility of Matthew Nativity account of killing all male boys 2 years and younger in the Bethlehem area just to ensure he killed baby Jesus?

 

Updated December 10, 2023.

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REFERENCES:

[1] Herod the Great.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2017. <http://www.livius.org/articles/person/herod-the-great/?> “Edom (ē`dŏm), Idumaea, or Idumea.” The Free Dictionary. 2017. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great>  Bunson, Matthew. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Idumaea.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624> Herod the Great.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 2017. <http://www.livius.org/articles/person/herod-the-great/?> “Edom (ē`dŏm), Idumaea, or Idumea.” The Free Dictionary. 2017. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great>  Bunson, Matthew. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Idumaea.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624> “Herod the Great Biography.” TheFamousPeople. photo. n.d. <https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/herod-the-great-37596.php
[2] Josephus, Flavius.  Antiquities of the Jews. Book XIV, Ch. IX.  William Whitson.  The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. Google Books.  n.d <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false> Josephus, Flavius.  Wars of the Jews.  Book I, Chapter X. William Whitson.  The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850.  Google Books. n.d. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  “Herod.”  Jewish Virtual Library. 2017. <http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/herod>   “Herod the Great – Governor of Galilee (47-37 B.C.).” <https://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Idumean> Bunson, Matthew. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Judaea.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624>
[3] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XIV, Ch. IX; Book XV, Chapter II.  Josephus. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter X. “Herod the Great.” Bible History Online. 2016.
[4] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XIV, Chapters IV, V, IX, XI.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter X.
[5] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XIV, Chapter. XVI, XII-XIV.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapters IV, XV – XVII.  “Herod I.” Jewish Encyclopedia.  2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7598-herod-i>
[6] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapters VI-VII.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XIX-XX.  Bunson, Matthew. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Herod the Great.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624&gt > Bunson, Matthew.  Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Jerusalem.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624>
[7] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapter VII.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapters XXI, XXV, XXIV.  “Herod the Great.” Bible History Online. 2016. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great>  “Herod the Great.” Livius.org.
[8] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter XI.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXI.  “Herod the Great.” Bible History Online. 2016. <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great>  Edersheim, Alfred. The Temple – Its Ministry and Services. 1826-1889. Chapter 1. <http://philologos.org/__eb-ttms/default.htm>  Hegg, Tim.  “Separating the Most Holy from the Holy:  The ‘Veil’ in the Tabernacle and First & Second Temples” Torah Resource. <http://www.torahresource.com/EnglishArticles/Veil%20ETS%20Paper.pdf>  “Temple of Jerusalem.”  New World Encyclopedia. 2015. <http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Temple_of_Jerusalem>  “Herod’s Temple.”  Bible-history.com.  n.d.  <http://www.bible-history.com/herod_the_great/HERODHerods_Temple.htm>   “Herod.”  Jewish Virtual Library.
[9] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter VIII; Book XVI, Chapter V; Book XVII, Chapters VI; VIII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXI.  “Hellenism” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7535-hellenism>  “Asia Minor.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/2010-asia-minor>
[10] Josephus. Antiquities. Book V, Chapter 1; Book XVI, Ch. VII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXVI.
[11] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapters VIII, X; Book XVII, Chapter IV. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXX.
[12] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter I.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XII. XXII.  “Herod the Great; Herodias.” Livius.org.
[13] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapters III-VII, IX, XIII, XVI. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXII.  Bunson. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Herod the Great.”
[14] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapter XI; Book XVII, Chapter IX.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXVII. XXXIII.  Bunson. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Herod the Great.”
[15] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI.
[16] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VI. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.
[17] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter VII. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXXIII.